President Obama speaks at a campaign event at the Cuyahoga Community College… (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty…)
President Obama, in an attempt to reset his campaign after weeks of missteps and setbacks, cast the November election as a chance for voters to break a "stalemate in Washington" between two sharply different philosophies.
The president, speaking in the battleground state of Ohio just moments after his Republican opponent addressed voters across the state, did not shy from the issue that would drive voters' decision in the fall. The election, he said, "is about our economic future."
But with the nation's recovery sputtering, Obama's speech before a spirited crowd at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland marked the most determined effort yet to frame the election as a choice rather than a referendum on the past three years.
Obama, a former constitutional lawyer, said voters choosing between him and Mitt Romney would "render a verdict on the debate over how to grow the economy, how to create good jobs, how to pay down our deficit."
Obama's case against Romney was that he and fellow Republicans are offering the same policies that have failed in the past, specifically the path pursued under his Republican predecessor in which prosperity "never trickled down to the middle class."
Obama explicitly said, in fact, that if voters "want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney."
In contrast, Obama said he would favor a balanced approach that would ask the wealthy to pay more so that the country could make "investments" in critical needs like education while reducing long-term debts.
Adopting an argument that former President Bill Clinton made during a joint appearance last week, Obama said that the American economy had fared better since the 2008 economic meltdown under his approach than Europe had under strict austerity models of the sort Republicans are campaigning on. But he notably avoided using terms like "progress" that had been a staple of recent remarks.
"The problems we're facing right now have been more than a decade in the making. And what is holding us back is not a lack of big ideas," he said, noting that both parties "have laid out their policies on the table for all to see."
"What's holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views of which direction America should take. And this election is your chance to break that stalemate."
Obama's core argument was largely familiar, though he freshened up his rhetoric now that his general election foe is clear. The speech -- more than 53 minutes long -- included elements of one that Obama delivered in April that dissected the House Republican budget plan Romney has endorsed, which Obama said would mean higher taxes for the middle class and gut major domestic programs to pay for new tax benefits for the wealthy.
Obama advisors see this as a speech that sets the table for the debate to come. They don't think it ends the bad run but is just the first step out of the bad patch, one that includes off-message surrogates, troubling economic data and an electoral setback in Wisconsin.
The president referred to a gaffe of his own, when he said that the private sector was "doing fine." "It wasn't the first time; it won't be the last," he said.
The president's team contends that Romney's speech, moments before Obama's in Cincinnati, has no ideas, new or old.
The idea that the policies of former President George W. Bush were to blame is, for the moment, backed up by a new Gallup poll showing Americans continue to place more blame on Bush than Obama for the state of the economy. The percentage who say Bush deserves a great deal or moderate amount of blame has held largely steady for the past year.
"This suggests that Obama's argument that he is on the right track and needs more time to turn the economy around could fall on receptive ears, particularly those of independents," according to Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport.
The Romney campaign characterized the Obama speech as another "reboot" of the sort it says the White House tried last December with a major speech in Kansas and the campaign attempted last month with kickoff rallies in Ohio and Virginia.
Before Thursday's dueling speeches, the Romney campaign also launched a new ad capitalizing on Obama's statement last week that the "private sector is doing fine," pairing it with statistics about Americans out of work and continued high unemployment. "How can President Obama fix our economy if he doesn't understand it's broken," text on the screen asks.
Republicans also accuse the campaign of a mixed message, with the president pitching a message of economic fairness in the Rust Belt before jetting to New York to collect more checks at star-studded fundraisers at the Plaza Hotel and the home of actress Sarah Jessica Parker.
"When being feted by a fashionista on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, or when courting celebrities in Hollywood, it’s easy to forget the economic hardships facing the rest of the country," RNC chairman Reince Priebus wrote in an op-ed Thursday on the conservative website BigGovernment.